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The blind spots of the circular economy

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It is now a mainstream topic: that economic recovery will be linked to the application of the Circular Economy is unquestionable and more and more also the press is taking note of the new orientation of European economic policies.
We know that the main environmental problems are linked to the finite nature of natural resources and their unequal distribution, while the world population is growing exponentially: this is how an environmental issue driven by current linear models is transformed into an economic issue, which is transformed into a social issue that finally becomes a political issue.
But, even in the goodness of our efforts towards the creation of new circular production and consumption models, something is still missing to complete the real revolution towards circularity.

Eco-efficiency and eco-effectiveness

Today, the main risk for the Circular Economy is linked to the dichotomy between eco-efficiency and eco-effectiveness, two concepts that, as McDonough & Braungart have well pointed out, are two sides of the same coin and need to be properly balanced to trigger true circular processes. Indeed, trying to close the circuits of a circular process at all costs, without paying attention to the final result and the indirect consequences produced, such as the externalities that are an integral part of the change process, may be potentially unsustainable for the environment or the local socio-economic context. This may lead to a project being qualified as "circular" (eco-efficient), but to all intents and purposes it remains far from the paradigms - pillars - of sustainability (eco-efficiency). We therefore speak of Blind Spots, as conceptual phases of a project that are not taken into account, but which in fact mitigate or in some cases cancel out the circular effect of the process itself.
For example, focusing only on energy and material efficiency in production processes could lead to undesirable results: this is the case of some energy-efficient buildings without windows, where the quality of the indoor air regulated by a high-performance air conditioning system proved to be very low.
Another example may be the production of fleece jackets from recycled PET bottles, an action certainly worthy of merit, but blind in the fact that fleece in the washing machine, if not placed in an ad hoc bag that retains the microfibres released by washing, pollutes more than leaving the bottle in the weather.

Blind spots

Blind Spots occur whenever the circular economy is not sustainable, i.e. whenever the design of a "circular" process prevails over the social, economic and environmental context of the area.
The "blind spots" of the circular economy can be found in these cases:

- When circular processes support unsustainable behaviour, such as in fast fashion or the recovery of high-tech packaging used to keep food from the 'fresh counter' in the fridge for a month.
- Whenever they are used to satisfy an unnecessary demand.
- When impacts on the local environment are not taken into account, e.g. the introduction of invasive alien species into local agro-ecosystems for the development of the bio-economy.
- When environmental and socio-economic externalities are not taken into account; for example, a biorefinery processing palm oil from another continent, produced by clearing forests and replacing them with hectares of plantations.
- When no economic benefits are produced for the local population (as in the case of foreign-based multinationals that prefer to employ people from their own countries over local companies).
- When there is no investment in the human and social capital that derives from rural traditions, craftsmanship, the know-how of makers in the local context (e.g. tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, electricians and all "repair" craftsmen).
- When we do not focus on the length of the supply chain, we trigger vulnerabilities in terms of energy demand and emissions (which increase with distance) and the socio-economic resilience of the local community.

How to remove blind spots from circular processes

During this pandemic, we have, in spite of ourselves, come to terms with a series of inefficiencies caused by planning anomalies that have rewritten the map of needs that we, as a community, have to cope with in order to absorb the blows that come from unforeseen and devastating events such as the one still unfolding.
The Covid-19 pandemic has definitively demonstrated that we must shorten supply chains, especially those critical to people's survival, by aiming to improve the (transformative) resilience of communities and territories to disastrous events, which include not only pandemics, but also the impact of climate change on a global and especially local scale.
In the revolution, in which we are all playing a leading role, towards circular business models, increasingly oriented towards the local growth of local areas and the consolidation of sustainability in corporate strategies, it is no longer enough simply to design according to the canons of Eco-design, but it is necessary to identify the dark points of design.
To achieve real circularity it is necessary to find the right way to balance eco-efficiency and eco-effectiveness, defining qualitative indicators and not just performance indicators.
Implementing circularity not only in products or processes, but also in business models and the local territorial context, makes the concept of circularity truly sustainable.

Here, then, are the guidelines for those preparing to create a circular and sustainable product or service:

  1. Completely rethink current economic models, focusing on the circularity of businesses in relation to the environment and the local communities in which they are embedded.
  2. Develop a territorial/urban circular model, capable of exploiting all business opportunities, generating biodiversity and supporting the functionality of ecosystem services.
  3. Increase natural capital and business capital, with the creation of circular production districts capable of developing concrete industrial symbioses that are well integrated into the territories.
  4. Consolidate social and human capital, through the rediscovery of traditional knowledge, the engine of local development.

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